Last Friday, U.S. officials announced plans to relinquish control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages Internet infrastructure to the so-called “global community.” Despite denials from the administration, the consequences of that move do indeed include the possibility of the Internet falling under U.N. control. That reality has been pursued for years by pro-censorship factions led by Russia and China. As such, enormous questions exist about the future of the Internet under the stewardship of international interests — questions that the Obama administration seems wholly unconcerned with.
The consequences of relinquishing control of the Internet involve more than censorship. U.S. security could be jeopardized as well. “Under invariably incompetent U.N. control, it could mean a hostile foreign power disabling the Internet for us,” former Bush administration State Department advisor Christian Whiton warned. He also sounded the warning on the possibility that any U.N. control of the Internet could engender taxes. “While the Obama administration says it is merely removing federal oversight of a non-profit, we should assume ICANN would end up as part of the United Nations,” Whiton said. “If the U.N. gains control what amounts to the directory and traffic signals of the Internet, it can impose whatever taxes it likes. It likely would start with a tax on registering domains and expand from there.”
Since the birth of the Internet, which grew out of a Defense Department program that began in the 1960s, America has always played the principal role in maintaining the master database for domain names, the assignment of Internet protocol addresses and other critical Web functions. That technical system is called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). An agency within the Commerce Department, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), has contracted out IANA’s operations to ICANN on a biennial basis since 2000. The latest contract expires in September of 2015.
NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling denied the possibility of a U.N. or equivalent type takeover, insisting that ICANN must meet four conditions to make the transition. “We will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an intergovernmental solution,” Strickling said in a conference call. He has asked ICANN to begin the process for making a formal transition that must “support and enhance the multistakeholder model” and “maintain the openness of the Internet.”
ICANN itself wants to get out from under U.S. oversight, and their effort has been abetted by European officials whose promotion of a globalization campaign has intensified in the wake of fugitive Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Administration’s overarching surveillance programs. An NTIA official denied the connection, insisting U.S. stewardship of the Internet was always intended to be temporary.
Regardless of which scenario is accurate, ICANN’s motive is transparent. The organization has elicited the wrath of many in the business community who believe their decision-making is aimed at accommodating the industry that sells domain names, and whose fees provide the lion’s share of ICANN’s revenue. They believe ICANN’s contract with the U.S. mitigates some of those abuses, and that international control would amount to no control at all.
There is little question that the selling of domain names is a huge business, one with enormous potential for fraud. As a 2012 article in the Washington Post revealed, several groups have been out to get control of names that would give them a huge advantage over their competitors. Examples include Amazon bidding for control over all the Web addresses that end with “.book,” Google for “.buy.” and Allstate for “.carinsurance.”
They further sounded the alarm about Donuts Inc., a company with close ties to a documented Internet spammer. Donuts Inc. bid $57 million for 307 new domains, including “.doctor,” “.financial” and “.school.” At the time, David E. Weslow, a D.C.-based lawyer who represents several major corporations, contended that such top-level domains would precipitate a “Wild West for fraud and abuse.” Law enforcement officials agreed, noting that the rapid expansion of new domains would increase the likelihood of cybercrime, even as identifying the perpetrators would become more difficult. In 2012, there were 22 “top level domains.” Here is ICANN’s current–and vastly expanded–list.
ICANN manages that list via an international structure of governance comprised of “stakeholders” that include governments, corporations, and civil society activists. Under its contract with the NTIA, it could theoretically be forced to render a website nameless, effectively removing it from the Internet. When that contract ends, a new form of global governance will take its place–one that has yet to be determined. There have been several efforts over the course of the last decade to transfer control of the Internet to the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU), whose website claims it is “committed to connecting the world.” Yet those efforts have been led by Russia and China, two countries whose commitment to “connecting the world” begins and ends with censoring content inimical to their interests.
Unsurprisingly, both believe the only stakeholders that really matter are countries. That’s because under the current contract, nations can only suppress Internet content. They can’t prevent websites from registering domain names. If those parameters change, domain name registry could be censored under the auspices of protecting one’s national sovereignty.
ICANN president Fadi Chehade dismisses that concern as well as others. “Nothing will be done in any way to jeopardize the security and stability of the Internet,” he promised. He called the Obama administration’s decision “historic.”
Republicans weren’t buying it. “While I certainly agree our nation must stridently review our procedures regarding surveillance in light of the NSA controversy, to put ourselves in a situation where censorship-laden governments like China or Russia could take a firm hold on the Internet itself is truly a scary thought,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). “I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee and with the Commerce Department on this, because–to be blunt–the ‘global Internet community’ this would empower has no First Amendment.”
Former Rep. Mary Bono (R-CA), who sponsored a unanimously-passed 2012 resolution to keep the Internet free from governmental control, concurred. “We’re at a critical time where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is proving he is capable of outmaneuvering the administration. … As they digest it, I think people are going to be very upset,” she contended.
As if on cue, Amnesty International revealed that Russia instituted a media blackout that included blocking a number of Internet sites in the Russian Federation prior to secession vote in Crimea. That censorship was enabled by an amendment to the Law on Internet Information signed by Putin on Feb. 1, giving the Prosecutor General’s office the authority to block websites that publish any calls for activities considered to be unlawful.
An op-ed by Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), reveals what’s at stake. He notes that two years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the registration of the first .com domain name, his company released a report revealing that “the annual global economic benefit of the commercial Internet equaled $1.5 trillion, more than the global sales of medicine, investment in renewable energy, and government investment in R&D, combined.” He believes all of it would be at risk if the Obama administration doesn’t resist giving up control of the Internet. He contends such a move would bring about a “splintered Internet that would stifle innovation, commerce, and the free flow and diversity of ideas that are bedrock tenets of the world’s biggest economic engine.”
Nonetheless, the effort has its defenders. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WVA) called the move “consistent with other efforts the U.S. and our allies are making to promote a free and open Internet, and to preserve and advance the current multi-stakeholder model of global Internet governance.” Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge, a hard-left group promoting itself as a public interest vehicle, concurred. “This is a step in the right direction to resolve important international disputes about how the Internet is governed,” he said.
This so-called step in the right direction is anything but. It is useful to remember that along with Russian and China, the EU criminalizes free speech, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference is determined to silence those who resist terror and jihad. And despite Chehade’s contention that the Obama administration’s decision “marks a point of maturity in the ICANN community and the global Internet community,” he revealed that governments would be welcome as “equal parties” with others in the coming discussions for laying out the appropriate transitional process. Those discussions are scheduled to begin at an ICANN meeting in Singapore next week.
ITIF’s Daniel Castro sounds the ultimate alarm, one that should concern every American. “Yes, Internet architecture is technical and, frankly, quite boring to outsiders,” he acknowledges. “But it is an issue with huge consequences that demands attention from policymakers. It is too important to get wrong. And if the Obama Administration gives away its oversight of the Internet, it will be gone forever.”
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